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A CurtainUp Review

I wish I could say I did it for you. But I didn't. I did it for myself. Cause I wanted more and more and more. It was the one thing that really excited me. --- Ted
 Conor Donovan and Harry Zittel
Conor Donovan and Harry Zittel
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Add to Martha Stewart's misadventure with insider trading, the new Off-Broadway comedy Privilege to stir memories of Ivan Boesky, a.k.a. "Mr. Insider," and junk bond tycoon Michael Milkin. This second comedy in two years by Paul Weitz (best known for directing the American Pie series with his brother Chris) is set in the "greed is good" 1980s and tracks an upper East Side Manhattan mogul's downfall and its effect on his family.

To play the fictional financial rules bender known only as Ted, we have Bob Saget who's best known for Full House and America's Funniest Home Videos. Saget's Ted is a blend of comic and sorrowful discomfiture. The scoundrel he's called on to portray is fairly minor league compared to Boesky and Milkin. The case histories of these infamous wheeler-dealers have obviously done little to deter ever bigger illegal adventuring at the public's expense by the likes of Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow. Ted's story provides a more cautionary crime and punishment lesson since he's failed to protect enough of his assets to insure that his family will continue to live in their rarefied worlds of privilege.

But wait. Stop the presses. Don't let me get sidetracked into op-ed territory. Though Mr. Weitz does show a real concern with the attitudes and patterns bred and fostered by go-go life styles, Privilege is not a Bernard Shaw like discussion play about the ills of Reaganomics or any kind of economics. Though he uses a character who's an amalgam of actual white collar criminals as his main plot building block, Weitz is not a moralizing message playwright.

Privilege lives up to its billing as a comedy -- albeit a comedy which happens to have serious undercurrents. It's not really as much about Ted, the character played the most high profile member of the cast, than about Ted's's sixteen and twelve- year-old sons, Porter (Harry Zittel) and Charlie (Conor Donovan). Which brings me to the bonds that really interest Mr. Weitz and make Privilege worth seeing. They're not the kind of bonds whose ups and downs are listed on the financial pages, but the sibling bonds that sustain Porter and Charlie when scandal tarnishes their silver spoon existence. Seeing the depth of that bond unfold lifts these a little too smart, too spoiled, too blase kids above obnoxious stereotypes. The four-way familial bond also comes across as strong enough to make both parents more likeable than they at first appear to be.

Telling the story of Ted's fall from grace from the viewpoint of his children means that Porter and Charlie get the most stage time. With journalists having so far neglected the backstage family traumas of such scandals, Mr. Weitz is on to an interesting angle. However, giving two kids, one only twelve such big roles could be a problem. Fortunately Harry Zittel and Conor Donovan are savvy and captivating young actors, both thoroughly at home on the stage and fully up to making the most of dialogue that bristles with humor and authenticity (Weitz and his brother, as sons of fashion designer John Weitz, grew up in this milieu).

While the boys are the stars, they are well supported by the other actors. Saget is fine as the deal-involved father who gets to chose the family's vacation destination because, as his wife puts it, he's the one who "controls fifty-one percent of the stock" -- that is until he turns out to be a not-so-clever deal-maker. A scene in which he insists on demonstrating the art of proper bed making to his now servant-less boys seems a bit tailored to his TV persona but no matter; it's funny and heartbreaking. Ted's explanation of why he was always more fixated on deals than the family -- "It was the one thing that really excited me"-- echoes Charlie's " I'm bored." speech in the opening act in which he lists everything that bores him, including a luxury vacation in Antigua. There's a subtle parallel here, hinting at how the family's abruptly altered circumstances might just save Charlie from growing up like his father, with a limited capacity for joy.

The women's roles are also well realized. Carolyn McCormick, as the wife and mother, brings conisderable dignity and growth to a role that could easily have veered towards caricature. Florencia Lozano invests Erla the maid who experiences the ripple effect of her employers' financial difficulties with wry wit and wisdom.

It would be easy to punch a few holes in the script -- a second act that doesn't quite measure up to the first, and the way justice is more satisfyingly and severely meted out here than in similar real life cases. But the relationship of the two brothers and the picture of their absurd but real life style outshines such negatives.

The production values are first rate, especially Tom Lynch's varied and versatile bedroom decor. He spares no detail for Porter and Charley's upscale bedroom which, with the help of Jeff Croiter's lighting, also accommodates a scene showing mom and dad in bed. The sparer second act bedroom is just as effective.

Probably there are instances of inside traders and other abusers of their corporate power who have lost all their money and property I can't think of any -- except Ted. Still, those with a firmer hold on their assets probably don't have two treasures like Porter and Charley.

Click here for CurtainUp's review of Paul Weitz's Roulette

Written by Paul Weitz
Directed by Peter Askin.
Cast: Conor Donovan (Charlie), Florencia Lozano (Erla), Carolyn McCormick (Anna), Bob Saget (Ted), Harry Zittel (Porter).
Set Design: Thomas Lynch
Costume Design: Jeff Mahshie
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Lewis Flinn
Running time: 2 hours, including one intermission.
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street, (west of Eighth Avenue) (212) 246-4422
From 4/05/05 to 5/15/05; opening 4/25/05.
Tuesday at 7:00pm, Wednesday - Saturday at 8:00pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00pm, and Sunday at 3:00pm.
Tickets: $38 - $65.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 24th press performance performance
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